JEFFERSON CITY - A red-faced Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan apologized Monday for participating in a minstrel show almost 40 years ago.
"I wish I had been more racially sensistive in 1960," Carnahan said about the decision to paint his face black and participate in an annual Kiwanis Club fundraiser that made fun of blacks. "I was probably not as discriminating as I should have been."
In the photo, taken in 1960 for a Rolla newspaper, Carnahan appears with the Kiwanis Quartet, a group that included his older brother, Bob Carnahan.
The minstrel show was an annual event until the Carnahan family put a stop to it in the early-1960s, the two-term Democrat said. He believes this was the only time he wore blackface, but later acknowledged he isn't sure.
The Missouri GOP has had the photo in a drawer since December 1998, a spokesman said. It surfaced this past weekend after Democrats hurled charges of racism at Sen. John Ashcroft, the governor's opponent in the 2000 U.S. Senate race. Ashcroft killed the federal judicial nomination of Ronnie White, a black Missouri judge, and Democrats, including President Clinton, charged that racial bias played a part in that decision.
"Mel Carnahan loves to have people talk about him as though he were an early champion of civil rights--this photo shows that's not true," said Daryl Duwe, a spokesman for the Missouri GOP. "Mel Carnahan was appearing in black face and mocking the entire race, that is the ugly reality."
Carnahan said the picture surfaced because of Republican dirty tricks.
"I think that one of the problems will be that we don't get drawn into doing the same thing," Carnahan said. "I do not wish to do so."
"I know that the Republican party didn't put the picture out, that John Ashcroft didn't put the picture out," Duwe said.
Carnahan said his Senate campaign is checking out Ashcroft's background.
Rolla, circa 1960, was a small community. The black community was even smaller. Blacks were "very highly respected," Carnahan said.
"My brother and I were both in this quartet, as you can see, and we were uncomfortable with it," Carnahan said, fiddling with his tie as he reminisced. The minstrel shows "were insensitive to the minorities being portrayed and the minorities never liked them," he said.